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August 29, 2012TUSCALOOSA | Maybe it's the classically plain uniforms, or its decades-old roots in the wishbone offense. Perhaps it's the fact that its last two starting running backs have won one Heisman Trophy and been a finalist for another.
Whatever the causes, the University of Alabama's offense is perceived nationally as a conservative one.
The reality is something else.
And as the Crimson Tide enters the 2012 season with a confident, experienced quarterback, a new offensive coordinator with a penchant for passing and a new starter at running back, the needle isn't likely to be moving toward the stereotype any time soon.
"If there is one thing we want to improve on," UA coach Nick Saban said, "it's make more explosive plays."
That can be done, Saban said, by attacking the middle of the field with the passing game, and by forcing defenses to defend the full length and width of the field.
Not exactly the stuff of the cloud-of-dust old school.
By all accounts, the replacement of Jim McElwain with Doug Nussmeier as Alabama's offensive coordinator has been an easy one for quarterback AJ McCarron. McElwain and Nussmeier have coached together at previous stops in their careers and share much the same philosophy about the best way to move the football.
McElwain didn't make wholesale changes to Alabama's offense when he arrived from Fresno State in 2008, and Nussmeier won't, either.
But that doesn't mean Nussmeier, who was offensive coordinator at Washington last year and set passing records as a player at Idaho, won't have his thumbprint on the offense.
"I guess we'll have to see on Sept. 1 what all new stuff we've got, but we're definitely throwing in some good things, some new things from Washington and things Coach Nuss has done throughout his coaching career," McCarron said. "We're (also) taking some things from our old offense. I think it's definitely going to be a very explosive offense we have this year, and a fun one to watch."
Added Saban: "He has a lot of good ideas that we've implemented into our offense. ... The adjustments we've made in the passing game are going to be beneficial to our offensive team maybe being more explosive and creating more balance."
At Washington, Nussmeier coached Jake Locker, who went on to be a first-round NFL Draft choice. Even without Locker, the Huskies' offense under Nussmeier was a formidable one last season. UW averaged 410 yards and 33.4 points per game last year, including a near 1,500-yard rusher (Chris Polk) and a 3,000-yard passer (Keith Price). In his final game, Nussmeier's offense piled up 620 yards in a 67-56 loss to Baylor that was the fireworks display of the bowl season.
Nussmeier looks to add at Alabama, however, not revamp.
"Obviously, the things that we've done offensive here have been very, very successful," Nussmeier said. "So you try and look at everything we've done, be objective about what really is good, what maybe can we grow and get better at, and what background do I bring that maybe is something a little new that we can add to help the system be better as a whole."
Debunking the myth
Although Alabama had one of the most reliable rushing attacks in the nation last year, not many facts support the notion that the Crimson Tide was conservative offensively.
With only 9 yards separating UA's rushing production (2,788) from its passing production (2,797) for the entire season, the Crimson Tide was as well-balanced as a Wallenda on a high wire.
McCarron threw 45 more passes on the season than Trent Richardson had carries.
With an average of 215 passing yards per game, the Crimson Tide ranked fourth in the Southeastern Conference.
Another aggressive trend for the Alabama offense has been a strong willingness to throw on first down. Against LSU in the BCS National Championship Game, the Crimson Tide attempted a pass on 20 of 31 first-down snaps, and most of the rushes came late in the game with the score in hand. With the game more in doubt, UA had at one point thrown on 18 of 21 first-down plays.
And that was no one-game anomaly.
According to Saban, the game plan against Tennessee last season was to throw play-action passes on first down, though McElwain did little of that in the first half, in which UA's offense struggled.
"You throw a play-action pass on every first down until I tell you to quit," Saban recalled telling McElwain. "So in that case, I didn't have to call the defense or the offensive plays, but we scored on three big plays in a row against Tennessee on long passes, all on first down. I told him 'OK, now you can run it again if you want.'"
UA center Barrett Jones said the perception of Alabama as a conservative offense depends on one's definition of the term.
"I know we get less plays probably than an average team just because we do run the ball more and control the clock more," Jones said. "Maybe balance is conservative. Kind of like 50 is the new 40."
Explosiveness begins up front
Completing more downfield passes begins with solid pass protection, especially with McCarron throwing passes to a new cast of receiving targets this fall.
And in that regard, there is little doubt McCarron will have ample time to find the open receiver.
"We don't protect our offensive line at all when it comes to throwing the ball," Saban said. "We want to do whatever we need to do to be effective and score points on offense."
Four starters return for the Crimson Tide on the offensive line, and new starter Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle was earning increasing playing time last year as a freshman before a knee injury ended his season. With Kouandjio back to full health, McCarron has full confidence in his protection.
"This is a very, very talented group of guys, as good an offensive line as I've ever been around in college football," Nussmeier said.
UA wide receivers, for their part, aren't against a reliable rushing attack.
"If the running game is working, the running game is working," junior Kenny Bell said. "If they're running the ball good, you just keep feeding the horse until it breaks. When our number is called, we'll make a play."
Reach Chase Goodbread at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0196.